Auto Racing / Sports

Ambrose once again a favorite at Watkins Glen International

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Jeff Gordon leads all drivers in the Sprint Cup Series with a NASCAR record nine wins on road courses.

Tony Stewart's five Cup series wins at Watkins Glen International are the most of any driver.

Neither can touch Marcos Ambrose's record of late at the Glen, however, which includes six victories -- all since 2008.

Ambrose, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports, won three consecutive Nationwide Series races at the Glen from 2008 to 2011 and again on Saturday. He also won the Cup events in 2011 and 2012. He started from the pole in last season's Cup race and led 51 of 90 laps only to get caught up in a wreck with five laps remaining.

Ambrose, who will start second, is once again a favorite to win in Sunday's Cheez-It 355 and this year the stakes could not be higher.

"We know we have a chance to win this race to lock into the Chase and that is a big thing for our team and would make our year. It is an important weekend, no doubt," said Ambrose, whose only NASCAR victories have come on road courses.

"There are going to be 10 to 12 guys out there that have a shot to win the race. You just know going in that it won't be a cakewalk, it is going to have to be a big grind to get the victory.

"I have been here in Victory Lane lucky, been here deserving it and I have lost races here when I deserved to win as well."

NASCAR's changes to the Chase format this season all-but guaranteed that a driver who earned a victory in the first 26 races would contend for the series championship. With 11 different winners and only five races remaining before the 16-driver field is set, it's now a certainty.

While Ambrose's road course skills honed in his native Australia provided him good opportunities to earn victories each season on NASCAR's road courses, this year's payoff could be a career-defining one.

A trip to the Chase would be a first for Ambrose and he would join RPM teammate Aric Almirola, who is already qualified thanks to a win in the rain-shortened race last month at Daytona Beach, Fla.

Ambrose's NASCAR success has been hit-and-miss and he wants to see the RPM organization as a whole become more consistently competitive.

"Our first two years before this new body (style), we had really good speed every week and it was a lot of fun. The last couple years have been a challenge for us. It has been a grind, no doubt," he said.

"We are looking for that next step in our team. It is a big step for us to make the Chase with Aric. That was a great day and a great opportunity, but we need more than that.

"We need to fix our intermediate program and downforce program and find out where we are lacking. That will make it easier. That is the lion's share of the tracks we go to."

While the consequences of victory have never been bigger for Ambrose this weekend, he is determined to focus only on what he can control -- which is driving his No. 9 Ford.

"You can only do what you can out there behind the wheel and let the racing gods work out whether it is your day or not," he said. "There are factors here that come into play that are outside your control.

"Some days you are on, some days you are not."

All is not lost should Ambrose not win Sunday. He remains mathematically in contention for a Chase berth should there not be 16 different winners in the first 26 races.

So, even a solid finish could still pay dividends.

"Winning is very, very difficult in this series so you have to be proud of putting effort in," Ambrose said. "So, for me, if I have a good day, drive the very best I can, and get out of here with a top-five, I'll take it as a decent day.

"But we've really come here to win."

(c)2014 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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